Anthony Daniels, also known as Theodore Dalrymple, writes in National Review (subscription required):
For the last two weeks, the French have been watching the numbers of cars burnt the night before in the suburbs the way New Yorkers watch the Dow Jones index. Does 463 mean that the riots are now in recession, or is the reduction compared with the previous night merely what stockbrokers call a technical correction? Could the senior policeman be right who said that the downward trend was “the beginning of a classic mobilization at the weekend”? In other words, could les jeunes be conserving their energy for a further assault on French complacency?
Certainly, the police intercepted e-mails calling on les jeunes to assemble in the Champs-ElysÃ©es and under the Eiffel Tower, which would really set the matches among the gasoline. The French Social Model would then have no choice but to swing into action, and send in the Compagnies RÃ©publicaines de SÃ©curitÃ© (the feared CRS), all batons flailing: the continuation of social work by other means.
It must be admitted that les jeunes have a strange way of trying to prove to the world that they are not what the outspoken interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, so perceptively (but unadvisedly) called scum. Having long pondered the delicately balanced question of whether it is more humiliating to be justly or unjustly accused, I suspect that les jeunes have reacted with such fury to M. Sarkozy”s epithet precisely because they knew themselves that it was accurate. For how else do you describe people who are prepared to burn the cars of 6,000 of their neighbors, and a bus with a 56-year-old handicapped woman in it who was unable to escape and was severely burned as a result; people who did not take this horrific incident as an indication to desist, and whose subculture is a transposition of that of the American underclass at its worst?
But a descriptive term is not an explanation, unless you believe “” as I do not “” that large numbers of people are scum by nature, by unchangeable essence (and even that essence would require explanation). Whatever reservations one might have about the culture that the parents of les jeunes brought with them to France when they immigrated there, they “” the parents “” were definitely a more attractive group of human beings than their offspring, brought up in the banlieues of French cities and towns. At the very least, they were hard-working, law-abiding, decent, polite, and optimistic about improving their condition and that of their future children. Things have turned out very differently, of course: Many of their children, no doubt larger and healthier than their North African counterparts, have grown into alien beings whom they have long since ceased to understand.
The French banlieues are in effect prisons, but prisons that are ruled by the prisoners who live in them “” generally the worst and most brutalizing kind of prisons there are. These prisons have metaphysical walls rather than real ones, though they are geographically isolated from the towns and cities to which they are attached. The metaphysical walls are patrolled by a combination of rigid French labor laws, which make it so difficult for the young to find employment in France, and the subculture of les jeunes themselves, which is conducive to nothing except idleness punctuated by insensate rage.
As in all prisons, an us-and-them attitude develops, in which anyone who is not one of us is one of them, and with whom any decent relations are a form of treachery toward us. In prison, it is the wardens and the prisoners who are in binary opposition; in the banlieues it is les jeunes and any other member of French society who are irreconcilably opposed. I have rarely felt such immediate and reflexive hostility as when I visited the banlieues of Paris, not even in African townships at the height of apartheid.
Of course, the hostility is entirely reciprocated by the police, who suspect all of les jeunes of everything, and behave accordingly: more like an army of occupation trying to repress the discontents of the natives than a force to protect everyone equally. It is sometimes said that the hostility of les jeunes has been caused by this attitude of the police. But this does not explain the almost equal hostility toward the sapeurs-pompiers, the firemen, whose job is to put out fires and rescue people who are trapped, and even toward the crews of ambulances sent to evacuate the ill and injured to the hospital. The rage is an existential one, worsened perhaps by particular instances of humiliation, but fundamentally independent of them.
Of course, just as prisoners know themselves to be in an intrinsically less powerful position than the wardens of their prison, so les jeunes know themselves to be in an intrinsically powerless position vis-Ã -vis the French state. For one thing, many of them are completely dependent upon that state for everything they possess and everything they eat. Even the drug dealers, whose business is practically the only economic activity of the banlieues, know that, at base, they are dependent on the French state: If their customers, les jeunes, were not in receipt of state subventions, the dealers would have no market for their wares.
The humiliation of such dependence hardly needs emphasis; nothing is left to les jeunes but endlessly to distract themselves in their uneducated, crude, and tasteless way, and to soothe their inflamed egos with the balm of “respect,” which in practice means making others fear them, both individually and collectively.
Of course, when I talk of les jeunes, I refer only to the male of the species. There has been a marked lack of curiosity in the world’s press about the absence of women from the scenes that, for a time, have made Clichy-sous-Bois as famous as Paris itself. There has also been little attempt to canvass the opinion of the young women of the banlieues about developments in the streets. Here truly is the dog that did not bark, for many of them might have told a story of oppression by les jeunes that would make the French state seem a model of equity and compassion by comparison. Indeed, to anyone even moderately alert to social meanings, the mere difficulty of canvassing female opinion in the banlieues would have represented an important story.
The part played by Islam in the riots is bound in an age of Islamist terrorism to preoccupy us, but in my opinion it played at most a peripheral or enabling role. Young men of Islamic background are perhaps more sensitive to humiliation, and more likely to react violently, than others, since they are habituated to thinking of themselves as superior beings to women, the elect of creation. They are also determined to preserve their domination of women. This is the principal interest that Islam has for the young Muslim men of both Britain and France, and probably Holland as well, who are in all other respects almost as highly secularized as their non-Muslim counterparts. Islam also helps to keep their resentment warm, to give it shape; and resentment is, of all human emotions, by far the most dependable “” but also the most counterproductive. But les jeunes are not religious fanatics: They are not religious at all. When French Islamic clerics issued a fatwa condemning the riots, it had absolutely no effect. Only a fatwa calling for riots might have had some effect, but only because there existed an inclination to riot in the first place.
This is not to say that the situation is not extremely dangerous. Les jeunes of all descriptions are often looking for supposedly complete answers to their existential problems, and an obvious one lies close at hand in the French banlieues. It would be surprising indeed if fundamentalists did not try to take advantage of the discontents to further their designs “” if an impossible and primitive utopian daydream can be called a design.
Of course, the French state has been living a daydream of its own, namely that welfare can be extended indefinitely without adverse social, economic, and psychological consequences. It now finds itself with a very painful dilemma. The situation in the banlieues can be improved only by a liberalization of the French labor market; but years of propaganda from the French intelligentsia have made the majority of Frenchmen deeply hostile to economic liberalization. A recent poll conducted for the newspaper LibÃ©ration showed that the word “socialism” had better connotations for Frenchmen than the word “capitalism,” and that economic liberalism was viewed with great distaste.
At a recent conference, I heard an eminent French intellectual say that the French government needed to introduce entrepreneurs into the banlieues. He was a representative of French liberalism (comparatively speaking), yet his view was still essentially Colbertian. Even he had not yet grasped that the state was the problem, not the solution, that it was the state that had enclosed les jeunes in an existential prison. Unfortunately, most of the French population benefits “” or believes that it benefits “” from the regulations that maintain that prison. Riots in les banlieues or marches down the Boulevard Saint-Germain: That is the choice facing the French government, and my guess is that they will prefer the former to the latter, even if in the end it means sending in the CRS, no holds barred.